a year of june

savoring sunshine all year long

Easter, trying

My mom had always cooked ham on Easter. Fresh out of college and full of ideas, I figured it making a ham was the right thing to do when my roommate and I hosted a big Easter gathering at the house we shared. Cooking something that felt like home was simply the answer for how to do things the right way, how to be an adult, to appear as though I had my shit together, when I most certainly did not.

It was 2009 and the world was burning around us. Everything in mine seemed to be one strong gust of wind away from bursting into flames. That was the last time I thought ham could be a homey salve, like we all probably did as new entrants into an insane adult world, and it was the last time I remember cooking one.

That Easter weekend, I nearly lived in the kitchen, starting the floury, yeasty beginnings of potato rolls in the morning and ending the day by pulling the golden, pillowy rolls from the oven as they sang out wisps of steam. In the evening, our guests arrived with side dishes in hand, too many bottles of wine, and the kind of boisterous joy that shut out everything else beyond our front porch. Suddenly, the mixture of company, food, and the smells of a home-cooked meal transformed the ground-floor rental with yellow walls and builder-grade fixtures that two 23-year-olds shared into a home.

As we sat down to eat, things began to fall apart. Someone’s rude boyfriend forgot his Sunday-best everything and accused me (in a pretty foul way) of “buying into the scam of organic food.” A friend’s loud, piercing laugh broke the silence that befell the table like a knife falling loudly to the floor. The insult washed over me. My hands went numb with rage.

I was dumbstruck. After all the hours I’d cooked over three days’ break from work, this. After all the hours on my feet, all the effort that I thought would bring forth something special and something real for all of us, this. All the cost, in a volatile-as-hell economy where my boss had just said how lucky we were to even have our jobs, this. Those words, that laugh.

For me, dinner was over then. I picked at my food and ignored the ham. What little I ate was merely eaten, not enjoyed.

I felt alone as ever in a room of a dozen people who were my roommate’s friends first, then mine. They knew me as one half of a highly dysfunctional, anxiety-fraught long-distance relationship, the one who almost always made the only effort to visit the other, hightailing it out of New Orleans on I-10 some Friday nights in my Corolla to make it to Houston by midnight if I was lucky. I was, at the time, still a Republican, still a hopeless idiot as far as everyone else at the table was concerned. Shared food and laughter brought us all to sit in tightly packed, mismatched chairs around our table many Sundays. I was there, too, but miles apart.

Two years prior, Easter arrived with little fanfare during my senior year of college. Spring was barely making its way to New Orleans, and I was making plans for what was next.

Katrina had ravaged our campus, so I spent my athletics volunteer hours working varsity baseball games played at the stadium in the suburbs in order to keep the roughly 60% of my scholarship money after my team was cut and I could no longer swim to earn it. One car ride home that Easter weekend, we fought again, the pressures of our relationship and the timeline for the beginning of my real adult life closing in fast around us.

Later that evening in the yellow glow of the kitchen in the house on Palmer Street, I put my cards on the table.

“I want to start over,” I pleaded between sobs, ready to leave that kitchen for good. I had already envisioned how I’d march out of there and right into what I wanted, something better, anything better, which I knew I deserved but couldn’t explain.

“I don’t want a fresh start with you,” he said, misunderstanding me.

But I wasn’t asking for a clean slate.

I wanted to cut ties — to let go of him and four unhappy years. To start over with someone new, or just be on my own for the first time in my adult life. To have an Easter, or any holiday, that felt at ease or with the glorious absence of deep disappointment. Still young and obviously naive, I didn’t trust myself to make a move.

When he offered to be better, to help fix the many things that were so wrong with us, I caved to his pleading, once again.

We didn’t cook for the holiday that year. I don’t recall what we ate, if at all.

All of me empty, we continued on for almost four more years.

Cupboards with old hinges have a way of slamming shut, a sound that, from my room, told me to stay as far from the kitchen as possible. Stay out of it.

Everyone was fighting. No one was listening.

I couldn’t wait to get out of the house in a few years’ time. Easter always seemed to be like this, a frenzy of emotions and expectations colliding. Wasn’t it supposed to be sunny, flowers, green grass, baby bunnies, baby chicks?

The one Easter it snowed in the desert, I made a cake after we got home from church to mark the occasion. No one wanted to eat it but me.

Was this where the pattern began? Did it live within me?

Under an overcast sky, we light the wood-fired pizza oven as our daughter watches intently from inside, her little hands on the panes of the giant window.

There are no more large gatherings, no more table settings for twelve with wine stains on a cheap tablecloth. It’s just the three of us in our home, quiet and flanked by tall pines and oaks on all sides. Thanks to a late frost, there is nothing in my garden ready to harvest, so I have to buy a lanky basil plant from the store to bring this margherita pizza to life.

I move quickly to get the pizza in the oven, turning it every 20 seconds or so so nothing burns. Everything around me stands firmly in its place, muted, cautious, as a cold wind blows and occasionally drives smoke into my face.

No one move. Don’t try too hard. Don’t mess this up.

Pizza was the right call, we decided, for the second year in a row. There was no ham.

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